“And then they brought the bai jiu.”
3-3-3 Tour: Day 11
I’d walked down to the river as I’d done on my first night in Suzhou. Again there was the dancing, the kids on rollerblades, the breeze and general gaiety. I’d spent another day exploring the city, trying to figure it out. It had canals, but it was no Venice. It had gardens, but not nearly as numerous as before. I’d not been disappointed by Suzhou in so far as it had failed to live up to expectations. It was just that those expectations hadn’t exactly been trounced by wondrousness in the meantime.
But I was in China. And where else in the world would I want to be? China with its dancing and its randomness. China with its chicken feet in vacuum packs. I was almost two thirds of the way into my 3 weeks, 3 mountains, 3 provinces tour without having so far been near a mountain. But if I went no further above sea-level than the pavements of Suzhou, I doubt I’d be too perturbed by the end of it.
I’d bought myself a yoghurt and a couple of bananas to go with my ice cream from the store across the road and was sitting by the water’s edge. I was going to need vitamins and minerals intravenously when I got back to Hong Kong, but until then, I figured I could just about manage to squeeze another week of punishment out of my battered system before massive organ failure set in. I’d been joined about a yoghurt-and-a-half into my eating by a curious character who’d obviously taken some interest in this pasty, check-shirted picnicker, and had crossed the rocks to say hello. He looked like a kind of toothless Gollum, shuffling up to me with his gaping grin as I looked up from my pot. All those stalagmites and stalactites jutting around inside the abyss. It was like peering into Carlsbad Caverns when he smiled. But he was a friendly sort, and once he’d took my nodding and noises of encouragement for encouragement, we got to sharing my bananas and chatting (as much as you could call it that) about the state of Suzhou.
I may not have understood everything he was saying, but I walked away from our fifteen minutes together with the impression that I’d had my most wide ranging Chinese conversation to date. We talked about Suzhou’s new skyscrapers and how the city used to be. We talked about the number of foreigners in China and how I was the first one that he’d spoken to. It was hardly groundbreaking stuff and I was getting by on gist alone for the most part, but I walked back over the bridge, back towards the old town, feeling pretty good about our little riverside chinwag. And that’s when it happened.
Full of confidence after I left my gummy friend, a guy at a street barbeque stood up and beckoned me over as I passed. There were two of them. A few plastic tables had been set up outside a small restaurant and those gathered round were tucking into whatever was roasting away over coals just out of range of the smoke. In the middle of the table was a huge pitcher of beer with its own tap for pouring, and now that I was swimming in the misguided notion that I could hold my own in Chinese conversation, I saw no reason not to dive right in.
The difference this time, however, was that whereas before I could cobble together some sort of meaning from the few words that I recognized, that guy also didn’t seem to have been drinking all evening. Even if my Chinese had been good enough I doubt I would have been able to understand much through the slurs and general rambling of what was being said. Only one of the two seemed to be more than a little worse for wear. But I quickly understood I was out of my depth.
Drinks were poured and food was brought for me. Pretty soon I had a beer in one hand and a kebab in the other. When I tried to politely decline the cigarette that was offered, it was clear that no amount of protest was going to be accepted. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be seen within thirty feet of meat on sticks for fear of contracting E. coli. With a cigarette in my hand, pretending I knew how to smoke to complete the look, I felt like I was being shown an image of my future self as some kind of warning as to how it could all go so very very wrong. And then they brought the bai jiu.
It all started turning a little bit weird after that. The bai jiu was like paint stripper and my beer glass was never allowed to get close to half empty. I was given another cigarette as soon as I’d finished my first. When I was asked where my hotel was I took it as more friendly chat. Then the more obviously drunk of the two started showing me his leg. I hadn’t a clue what he was saying, but when I noticed the guys on the next table looking at us and sniggering, I guessed it was something I was better staying blissfully ignorant of. I decided it was time to thank them for their hospitality, and before any more bai jiu, cigarettes or kebabs were tossed my way, graciously leave the scene. I put a generous Y100 bill on the table and got myself out of there.
I’ve written before about the need for trust and a ‘say yes’ attitude when travelling. On my Hong Kong to UK by train trip I found myself being driven for six hours across the Gobi desert towards the China-Mongolia border. I was alone in a car with a driver I’d only just met. But you weigh up your options then either take the risk or back away. Saying ‘no’ is the easy option. It takes courage to say ‘yes’. Saying ‘yes’ means stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing something new. Most of the time this courage is rewarded and new experience follows. I may have been close to being the unwitting guest of honour at someone else’s sexy after-show party this time around. But at least I had a story.